[18 September 2009]
Last week I wrote that the perceived difficulty of a game is less affected by the individual challenges that make up said game than it is the ramp-up in difficulty and other elements surrounding those individual challenges. Essentially, punishing games can be fun. For all the negative connotations of the word, it more describes a very demanding style of gameplay than a level of difficulty. Punishing the player while keeping him entertained is a tough balancing act, but Trials HD strikes that balance: A brutally punishing game that does everything it can to remove the frustration from the punishment.
Trials HD is part puzzler and part racer. Set on a 2D plane, the player rides a motorcycle through an obstacle course, racing against the clock. The earlier courses focus more on speed and timing, while the later courses present the player with insane obstacles that require some creative thinking in order to pass. Every course demands practice and patience. For example: A beginner’s course is just filled with ramps, but simply holding down the gas will not get you a gold metal. Counter to many arcade-style racers, which Trials HD seems to be at first, you must learn when to slow down in order to gain momentum.
There are many, many, checkpoints in each course, nearly one after every obstacle. If you go off a ramp, you can bet there’s a checkpoint on the other side. This ensures that the only challenge players are ever concerned with is the one directly in front of them. It’s always frustrating, in any game, when we fail a challenge and must then replay the build-up to that challenge; having to slog through that same build-up over and over again turns playing the game into actual punishment, as in an unwanted consequence for failure. Trails HD realizes this and never forces the player to replay large sections of a level. Once an obstacle is overcome, it can be forgotten, and the player can focus all his attention on what’s next.
Retrying Is Easy
There’s also a “quick-load” feature that allows players to reload from the last checkpoint with the press of a button. If you miss a jump or go off at the wrong angle, you don’t have to wait to crash before you get the option to retry. You can just press a button to get back on the bike immediately. Having to watch the same death/failure scene over and over is annoying, especially when the death/failure scene lasts longer than the actual time spent playing. Trials HD makes it as easy as possible to retry after failing.
Variety is important in warding off potential frustration, and Trials HD has a surprising amount of variety considering how everything in the game revolves around motorcycles and obstacles. The main game is split into five levels of difficulty ranging from Beginner to Extreme. Naturally, as the player completes the courses in one difficulty level, they unlock the next, but players don’t have to finish every course in order to advance, just a majority of them. So if one level proves to be too hard, we can skip it and still be able to advance. There’s never a single obstacle preventing the player from progressing.
Then there are the Skill Games, a collection of seemingly random mini-games that offer the player a break from the main mode. They range from seeing how long you can stay balanced on top of or inside a ball, to how far you can ride up an ever-steepening slope. Some of the skill games (like the one in which you try to break as many bones as possible in a single fall, or the one where you try to fling the rider as far as possible) provide a cathartic release of any anger garnered in the main game. But for all their fun, they also teach the player valuable skills necessary to pass some of the later courses, such as balance, keeping momentum, and (especially) climbing. So even as we take a break from the main courses, the game is helping and preparing us for more.
Trials HD panders to the player in every way except lowing the difficulty. While playing other punishing games, it can sometimes feel like the game is giving itself an unfair advantage in order to up the difficulty, which can anger players and convince them to quit. But in Trials HD, it feels like the game is helping us, urging us on despite its merciless courses. We’re not actually competing against the game; the courses serve as an arena in which we compete against ourselves and our friends for the best time. The game does urge us on by offering medals, but sometimes it’s satisfying enough just to be at the top of you Friends List, even if you only have a silver medal. Competing in such passive, inanimate courses means that any mistake is clearly our fault. If we can’t get up a steep ramp, it’s not because the game is steadily increasing the incline, it’s because we’re not hitting the gas at the right time. The only person we can ever fault is ourselves. That’s what makes Trails HD punishing in all the right ways.